How to Act With Courage

Excellence springs from courage, but not everyone chooses to be brave. These financial advisors share how and why they acted with courage, and how it benefited their business. Consider their insights into the nature of courage, and start using it to build your business, too.

Let’s start with a definition. The word “courage” shares a root with the French word coeur, or heart. So when you act with courage, you’re acting from the heart, from your inner instincts.

I define courage as being authentic, acting from your gut. You know when your gut senses danger or trustworthiness during a first meeting with someone. Courageous actions spring from taking to heart what your gut is telling you.

The brain is involved. But there are no decision trees. In fact, your executive center may stifle courage at times. “Courage has need of reason, but it is not reason’s child; it springs from deeper strata,” wrote Herman Hesse.

For instance, if your gut instinct is that a wealthy prospect is going to be extremely difficult to work with, it may be courageous to walk away. It may be good business practice to say, “I’m not interested in moving in that direction at this time.” But that might mean giving up what seems to others to be a blockbuster account. Do you focus on the dollars? Or do you do the courageous thing and listen to your heart and your gut?

Following are six examples of people in the financial services industry who have acted with courage. Perhaps you are facing similar situations.

Courage at the small company: three examples

Mark Twain wrote, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear—not the absence of fear.” In each of the three examples below, an advisor was afraid to take the action his gut was telling him to take. But each felt the fear and did it anyway, with great benefit for his practice.

  • Challenging the boss. One of my clients had worked as a financial advisor for three years, and his sales average was below standard. Jeff was smart and personable but wasn’t bringing in enough assets. As a result, both Jeff and his manager were unhappy. Wanting to keep Jeff on the team, his manager saw an opportunity to grow their branch by compensating him to recruit other advisors. Jeff agreed, especially since he was in a weak position, but that meant he was wearing two hats. Doing recruitment made finding new clients harder than ever.
    Jeff began to feel paralyzed because he didn’t want to do the recruiting and he didn’t have enough time to build his client base. Although his manager was paying him extra for recruiting, Jeff determined that he was actually losing money by not focusing enough on prospecting. He finally followed his gut and told his manager, “As you requested, I did recruitment for the past six months. However, I cannot afford to do so any longer.”
    Challenging his boss’s assignment for him required tremendous courage. And the result was that Jeff focused on his sales, improved his cold-calling techniques, developed better business practices, and stayed in the industry.
  • Shifting gears. Another advisor I worked with was a top producer, but he had interpersonal difficulties within his office. Lloyd had a history of selecting poor partners and assistants. He took the quick-fix attitude that “new revenue will solve old problems.” Lloyd got a wake-up call, however, when the legal fees from a disgruntled former partner nearly eliminated his annual profit on year.
    Lloyd realized that he needed to work more slowly when it came to hiring colleagues. This represented a big personal shift for him, a change not only in how he hired people, but in how he thought about his practice and what he valued. He sat down and carefully defined the qualities he was looking for in a new partner. He used objective assessments, wrote dissolution clauses, and determined exactly what he needed. It took courage for Lloyd to hire slowly. But the result was confidence and a stable practice when he hired a new partner, with whom he has an excellent fit.
  • Getting extreme. Another client is an advisor with more than $120 million in assets under management. Tom has an account minimum of at least $250,000 in investable assets. At a certain point, he knew that he was losing focus on some of his clients. In fact, he had too many. So Tom interviewed extensively and sold the bottom 50% of his book of business to a partner. That required courage! He soon realized that he had retained 90% of his assets. But not too long after the first cut, Tom’s gut told him that he could provide better service if he had an even more exclusive clientele.
    Even though his gut told him it was the right thing to do, Tom was afraid to prune his book again. How could it be right to give up lucrative clients yet again? To get himself to follow his heart and gut, Tom wrote about what was holding him back and what he might need to make the change.
    This is how Tom described it: “All of my fears were listed on one side of the page in black and white. And on the other side of the page was a single word: Courage. I just needed to follow my gut instincts. Finally, when courage outweighed my fears, I was confident enough to make my decision. It did not matter that I had already sold half of my book once before.”
    Once again, he sold the bottom half of his book to a new partner. And he retained 85% of his assets within a more focused, better managed, and higher-quality practice.

What would you have done in their shoes?

Courage at the big company: three examples

“Courage is contagious,” said Billy Graham. “When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened.” If you’re working in a large financial institution, you may be wondering how courage would come into play. After all, large financial institutions are not usually recognized for innovation. When you think about innovation, you may think of a start-up, or a smaller business seeking to define its market share. But the courage to change is a key facet of sustained success, even for established businesses.

If you are a manager or advisor within a big institution, you are still presented with challenges to find the courage to act on your gut. In fact, it may be harder to do within a big institutional context—tradition may carry you along. Or your lack of courage may be overlooked because of someone else’s actions. But you’ll know whether you’ve listened to your heart and your gut. And if you do, you may inspire those around you to do the same, which will benefit not only your bottom line and but your group’s sense of satisfaction, too.

A friend of mine is a senior vice president for innovation at a large financial institution. He recently shared with me these first two examples of how courageous decisions can play out in a big company.

  • Having faith in the future. My friend, Peter, said, “Innovation requires courage. Can you imagine heading up a business group that is making money and saying to your supervisor, ‘We may do a better job if we no longer charge clients for any trades’?”
    That would take some courage! But Peter had to coach several business groups to make just that kind of change. Those groups, said Peter, had to realize that “there might be better relationships with more clients, new clients, and there might be new money down the line. But we’re giving up current money because of a forecast.” They had to learn to focus on the business upside instead of remaining enmeshed in their fears of the business downside of innovation. They did it, and in the end, they were more profitable than ever.
  • Keeping it honest. What if your business group is expected to continue with double-digit growth, but some of the accounts are inaccurate? What would you do? Within one large financial institution, some of the managers of those business groups have been asked to leave. Those decisions required tremendous courage, but one result is increased value on Wall Street.
  • Shifting paradigms. At another large financial institution, there has been a shift regarding technology use. Instead being viewed as a necessary expense, technology is now being managed as a business unit. One of my clients, Samuel, said, “If you have allocated $1 million for technology and come in $200K under budget, that once meant that you were a champion. But if you did that in a sales or product group, the response would be, “Why did you tie up this $200K for 12 months when we needed it elsewhere?'”
    Thinking of technology in these new terms represents a shift in thinking for everybody working in the company. Those that don’t adapt because they’re afraid of what’s new will suffer. Those that feel the fear and move forward will find opportunities within the firm. “Each technology group now requires a courageous manager to make sure that technology use is managed like any other aspect of the business,” said Samuel, who was recently promoted to be one of those courageous managers.

What would you have done in their shoes?

The reality: individual courage

There is a myth that courage happens differently at larger or smaller institutions. It goes something like this: Those in larger institutions can just follow their leaders, while those in smaller companies must rely on individual decisions. But that is why I repeated the question “What would you have done in their shoes?” after each of these sections on small practices and large firms. The reality is that no matter where you are, courage is always an individual action.

Great executives can promote courage. Companies can build cultures that incorporate courage as a valued quality. However, only individuals can act with courage. So when you’re feeling frightened about what your next move should be, remember this handy formula: When C > F, then ACT. In other words, when courage is greater than fear, then you are acting with courage.

You are the only one who can make the critical decision to do so; when your moment of choice comes, remember the words of that adventurous French author Anais Nin: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

What do you think?

What is something courageous that you have done? What is something courageous that you need to do? Comment below and tell us about it.